March 30, 2015

Political asylum from persecution in Turkey

Abdullah Bozkurt

The political asylum cases originating from Turkey will likely increase against the background of intensified political persecution of opponents and critics in Turkey by the growing authoritarian and Islamist regime that is bent on abusing the criminal justice system with partisan judges and prosecutors.

Not a single day passes in Turkey without a journalist, academic, artist, businessperson or ordinary citizen getting slammed by an investigation or trial for defamation of Turkey's political Islamist leaders, who rose to power through elections but are now determined to derail democracy, and trample rights and freedoms. The dramatic surge in the number of prosecutions frustrates many Turks who now question whether Turkey is a good place to live and raise family. Turkey had generated a wave of political asylum seekers in the past during turbulent periods of military coups and the repression of leftists, Kurds, Alevis and conservative groups in the 80s and 90s. But perhaps, for the first time in Turkish history, we have started to notice a completely new pattern of political asylum seekers that originate from Turkey: Those running from the persecution relentlessly pursued by the political Islamist government.

These politically-motivated cases -- made to appear as if they are criminal investigations -- are nothing but instruments in the hands of political Islamists used to instill a climate of fear of the regime, intimidate the opposition and silence critics. The long list of objections listed by bar associations and teams of defense lawyers in political witch-hunt cases across Turkey is a testament to the fact that the rule of law is effectively suspended in Turkey. The legal protections that are afforded to the -- unjustly -- accused as part of due process and the right to a fair trial are being flagrantly violated. The verdict is often a forgone conclusion whereby a loyalist judge was ordered by political authorities to jail defendants no matter what the evidence says, if there is any at all.

Since challenging violations of due process and fighting against unjust detentions and arbitrary arrests have proved next to impossible, some Turks who are targeted by the Islamists have decided to flee the country rather than face charges. I do not think anybody can blame them for choosing to run from the persecution under the circumstances. Most who decided to stick around and fight the government's baseless charges have ended up in jail because they were not given the opportunity to respond to the allegations during arraignment hearings. Journalists, activists and anti-corruption investigators are behind bars, struggling to make their voices heard. The prosecutors withhold the laying of formal indictments for months, deliberately turning pretrial detentions into punishment in itself.

This open season for the hunting of critics and opponents started with the Gezi Park protests in May/June of 2013 during which mass anti-government rallies were brutally repressed by the police on the orders of the government led by then prime minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Hundreds of everyday citizens, including fans of prominent sporting club Beşiktaş, were rounded up and charged with attempting to overthrow the government. The repression was intensified in the aftermath of the massive corruptions scandals that went public on Dec. 17, 2013 in which Erdoğan, his family members and his business/political associates were incriminated.

The main law enforcement agency, which is the police department that conducted the dragnet to apprehend those engaged in graft, was reshuffled en masse with veteran police chiefs sacked arbitrarily. Members of the judiciary who had investigated government officials involved in corruption, influence peddling, tender rigging and aiding and abetting extremist groups in Turkey and Syria, were removed, reassigned, demoted, and faced disciplinary investigations and dismissal. The government also went after the independent media to prevent the dirt in the government from seeing the light of day while putting pressure on legitimate opposition parties, civil society groups and intellectuals in order to force them into silence.

The abuse of the criminal justice system climaxed with the establishment of the penal courts of peace, whose partisan judges are endowed with broad powers over investigations and other courts' rulings. The name sounds innocent, yet these courts are described by jurists and the opposition as belonging to the same league as the notorious independence courts, military-run coup tribunals and State Security Court (DGM) during which gross violations of human rights were recorded in Turkey's past. Erdoğan openly admitted to the reporters aboard a plane returning from a visit to Austria and France on June 22, 2014: “We are developing a project. We are laying down the foundations for this [witch-hunt revenge operations].”

The project Erdoğan was referring to turned out to be penal courts of peace that were established on July 18, 2014 after a bill was approved in the rubber stamping, government-controlled Parliament. Only four days later, more than 100 police investigators, many veteran chiefs with 20 to 30 years on the job, were rounded up in a midnight sweep in what was seen as a hush-up operation to silence graft-busting investigators who uncovered the illicit activities of senior officials including Erdoğan. They have been in pretrial detention since then with no indictment prepared or official charges laid. Those who were released pending trial are by no means immune from subsequent prosecution as was the case for many.

That drew the ire of the opposition in Turkey. The main opposition Republican Peoples' Party (CHP) spokesman and Deputy Chairman Haluk Koç said the government created a “special judiciary” to cover up its illegal practices, adding that the establishment of the penal courts of peace is part of this attempt. Noting that the judges in these courts have been assigned by the government to arrest critics of the Islamist government, Koç questioned: “What will these judges do? They will detain, arrest or freeze the assets of whoever the government points to [as its critics].” Engin Altay, CHP's parliamentary group deputy chairman, described the courts as a “project of hatred and revenge.”

Prominent jurists also describe these courts as illegal in that they violated constitutional articles guaranteeing an independent and impartial judiciary. Former Constitutional Court President Haşim Kılıç publicly declared during a conference in Ankara in mid-March that the penal courts of peace are illegal. Former Supreme Court of Appeals President Sami Selçuk, who is a well-respected jurist, has also said the penal courts of peace, which ruled for the detention of hundreds of police officers who investigated graft, are no different from the Yassıada court where dozens of anti-coup figures stood trial after the military coup of May 27, 1960 with 15 of them sentenced to death. He said the current government has violated the Copenhagen political criteria for admittance to the European Union, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Turkish Constitution.

Erdoğan's prime target is the Gülen movement (Hizmet movement), a civil society movement inspired by the teachings of Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has been highly critical of corruption in the government and is staunchly opposed to the abuse of religion for personal enrichment and career advancement. Erdoğan's vitriolic hate speech stigmatizing Gülen and his supporters was followed by witch-hunt prosecutions in the penal courts of peace. It was later expanded to include each and every critic of Erdoğan. Grand Unity Party (BBP) Deputy Chairman Remzi Çayır has recently revealed that Erdoğan confessed that the penal courts of peace were established to fight against critics including Gülen. Çayır said during a visit to the BBP's headquarters on June 25, 2014 in order to seek support for his presidential bid that Erdoğan said: “We have made a regulation about the penal courts of peace. It is now waiting on the desk of the president [then-President Abdullah Gül]. When this law is approved, within a week or 10 days, I will do away with these people [Gülen supporters].”

Looking at various criminal cases involving charges such as espionage, attempting to overthrow the government, illegally wiretapping officials and cheating scandals in exams for positions within the government, they appear disparate, yet there is a clearly discernible pattern in their execution. These politically-orchestrated cases are by no means random, although they are surely arbitrary. The Erdoğan regime has been attempting to create a new narrative in order to gloss over the dirty laundry in which it found itself deeply submerged while trying to intimidate dissent both in society and within the ranks of the ruling party. It is also a personal vendetta campaign for Erdoğan who wants to settle a personal grudge against investigators who caught him and his son with their hands in the cookie jar. He realizes the bitter fact that his political career is certainly doomed and is simply playing a survival game to prolong what is now left of his career.

Although judges and prosecutors serving in the penal courts of peace make little or no effort pretending to observe the Code of Criminal Procedure (CMUK) and the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), the varying outcomes on similar prosecutions indicates that the Erdoğan regime treats each instance of prosecution on a case by case basis. Public pressure as well as international criticism plays a factor in determining the outcome. When the government felt the heat from a major scandal that broke recently, it launched yet another wave of detentions to shift the public's attention and create a distraction from the embarrassing developments.

What is more, some of the accused have been charged with crimes that do not legally exist. For example, leading investigative journalist Mehmet Baransu was jailed on the charge of destroying “Xeroxed copies of confidential state documents” when there is no such criminal charge listed in the penal code. He was also charged with setting up and administering -- an unidentified -- terrorist organization when the law requires there to be at least three people involved, along with the existence of arms and ammunition, in order to meet the legal definition. Similarly, many police officers were detained on charges of illegal wiretapping when in fact all of these wiretaps were authorized by the courts as part of legitimate investigations aimed at preventing criminal activity. Others were accused of belonging to a so-called “parallel structure,” which has no discernible meaning in the TCK as there is simply no such illegal organization listed.

Under this terrible McCarthyism era Turkey has been going through under the political Islamist and authoritarian regime, nobody can blame anyone who decides to flee the country in order to find a safe haven until the rule of law and democracy are re-established and the practice of instigating witch-hunts under the guise of pursuing criminals ceases in Turkey. Those who decide to run away cannot be classified as fugitives from justice when there is no justice in Turkey.

Published on Today's Zaman, 30 March 2015, Monday